Monthly Archives: February 2016

Yarrow: a quiet goddess subdues half a planet

yarrow-achillea-millefolium-Coeur-d-Alene-Idaho-by-Betsey-CrawfordLast summer, while I was enjoying the ubiquitous glories of the vast stands of fireweed stretching from the Canadian border to the heart of Alaska, I noticed something unusual. Almost always, with a stand of fireweed, were a few stems of yarrow, a white, sometimes pink flower, shaped like a flattened umbrella, with stalks of feathery leaves. Except for a stand of pink ones, whose twilit luminosity attracted me, I almost never took pictures of it, and, after weeks of this, began to be intrigued, not so much by the yarrow, but by my lack of interest in it. I take pictures of every flower I come across, why not yarrow?

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Even the fireweed is having a hard time competing with the coastal slopes of Valdez, Alaska, but the yarrow is almost invisible. You can find one in the left lower corner, and then follow a slight curve up and right for three more

Ever since we started naming them, we’ve tended to pay a lot of attention to the more beautiful, fiery goddesses, and it’s easy to see fireweed — lush, fertile, gorgeous — as the queen of her surroundings, Aphrodite cloaked in magenta. Yarrow, by contrast, is almost invisible with such a companion. Even without fireweed around, yarrow is a quiet and unassuming plant, not, to my eyes, particularly pretty, and not photogenic. Flattish circles of tiny individual flowers are hard for the camera to do justice to, and yarrow, with its lack of contrasting color and texture, is particularly challenging.

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A quiet presence in a meadow in the Kenai Wildlife Refuge, Kenai, Alaska

Having ignored yarrow for most of my trip north, it then kept tugging at me once I got back to California. Its official name is achillea. Why, I wondered, did Carl Linnaeus, the eighteenth-century father of botanical nomenclature, name quiet yarrow after an ancient Greek hero, known as much for rage as courage? Legend has it that Achilles used yarrow to staunch the blood of his wounded enemy-then-ally, Telephus, though yarrow itself is never mentioned in the Iliad.   But it was enough for Linnaeus, and, since yarrow leaves have traditionally been applied to the skin to stop bleeding, it’s one of the plants he could have used.

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Among fireweed leaves on a twilight walk along the road in Moose Pass, Alaska

We know it was used many millennia before theTrojan War, in twelfth century BCE , because 50,000 year old yarrow grains have been found in the tartar of Neanderthal teeth. Since yarrow has known medicinal properties, but is not known for significant nutritional value, researchers concluded that the Neanderthals were up on their available medications. Native Americans had many uses for yarrow, including steeping the leaves for a tea to lower fever, help with sleep, and settle the stomach. Its ability to heighten the effects of alcohol apparently prompted the Vikings to use it in beer specially brewed to be drunk at weddings, which gives a hair-raising slant on Viking nuptials.

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A close look at the two flowers that make up the aster family: a central disk flower and the surrounding ray flowers, looking like petals

The whole northern hemisphere could have benefited from the use of yarrow, and most likely did, since it’s native virtually everywhere north of the equator, and is a pharmacopeia in itself. Its very usefulness would have helped its spread, as travellers carried it with them. A member of the vast Asteraceae family, the flowers are formed by its family’s signature two structures — a disk floret in the center, surrounded by ray florets, looking like petals. Each quarter inch yarrow flower is clustered with many others to form a head, which branches out from a stiffly erect, rather brittle stalk covered with delicate, finely cut leaves.

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The yarrow in Alaska is Achillea millefolium, variety borealis.

All achilleas share these traits, but there are genetic variations that have allowed them to adapt to higher and lower altitudes, dryer and wetter climates, differences in available light and nutrients. Yarrow’s adaptability is helped by its intriguing genetic promiscuity. Unlike animal genes, where offspring get a pair of chromosomes, one from each parent, plants can have multiple copies of their chromosomes, a state called polyploidy. Those with four copies are tetraploids, six are hexaploids, eight are octoploids.

Animals would not mate across such a variation, but plants, and especially yarrow, do, complicating the effort to sort them into species. Experts have, at different times, classified Achillea millefolium as 40 different species, and then changed their collective minds and lumped all variations into one, retreating into the umbrella term ‘species complex.’ So most likely all the yarrow I’ve seen in my life, including the cultivars for gardens, are versions of Achillea millefolium, the second name referencing its ‘thousand leaves,’ with ‘borealis’ added as I got farther north.

northern-yarrow-achillea-borealis-buds-Kenai-Wildlife-Refuge-Kenai-Alaska-by-Betsey-CrawfordMy growing interest in a plant I spent the summer overlooking reminds me of a moving interview with the actor Dustin Hoffman on his role as Dorothy Michaels in ‘Tootsie.’ Before committing to the movie, he wanted to be sure that he could really pass as a woman, so he went to the make-up people at Columbia Pictures to see if that was possible. Once they had done their magic, he said, ‘Great, now make me beautiful,’ and was dumbfounded when they said that was the best they could do. He went home in tears at his own blindness, and was in tears recounting the story. He said he thought of himself, in that guise, as an interesting woman, but he realized that if he were to meet her at a party, he would have ignored her in preference for someone more conventionally showy, the fireweed in the crowd.

northern-yarrow-achillea-borealis-Moose-Pass-Alaska-by-Betsey-Crawford-3Knowing that yarrow is a determined and talented plant, adaptable to every circumstance except standing water or extreme desert, or that the leaves are full of minerals for browsers, or that my ancestors used it to lower their fevers, relieve stomach cramps, and kill bacteria in their cuts doesn’t make it any prettier than I found it last summer, but it makes that facile judgement seem silly. It changes the way it looks to me, because my experience of it is richer, layered, connecting me to its energies in a way that relying on its surface charms had not. It brings me into the long history we humans have shared with it, and then further and further back into the tens of millions of years it bloomed on this planet before beings like me were here to be aware of it. Eons of blowing in the wind, soaking up the rain, creating a banquet of food and medicine from the sunlight falling on its leaves and the minerals seeping into its roots. This is how we release all bias. Knowledge is not only power, it’s love.

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It takes a village: the community of lichen

hypogymnia-species-alectoria-samentosa-witchs-hair-lichen-lobaria-pulmonaria-lungwort-Fish-Creek-Hyder-Alaska-by-Betsey-CrawfordThe farther I went north last summer, the more I found a world full of lichen. It’s everywhere in Alaska, and a dominant species in the arctic tundra. But it’s everywhere else, too, covering 8% of the world’s surface. Lichen holds the desert in place, fills the forests, hangs off branches in cool, damp coastal woods as well as in warm swamps. It’s on the trees in your backyard, slowly covering your grandparents’ tombstones, growing on fence posts, spreading under your feet as you climb mountains.

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Large lungwort (Lobaria pulmonaria) ‘leaves’ live with a species of Cladonia among the moss and ferns on a tree in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska

Lichen is indeed a village: it’s composed of varying forms of fungi, algae, and cyanobacteria living in symbiosis. Strands of fungi weave together to provide housing, which protects the algae and bacteria from environmental challenges like desiccation and UV radiation. The algae and bacteria provide food via sugars formed through photosynthesis. The resulting body, or thallus, lives on its substrate — wood, soil, rock, occasionally air — along with other members of the community, usually moss, often other forms of fungi and algae, and the trees, ferns, flowers, rocks, and animals of whatever environment it’s growing in.

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Black-footed reindeer lichen (Cladonia stygia) mixed with snow lichen (Flavocentria nivalis) in the Yukon tundra

Though I am no lichenologist — identifying the few lichens here that I’ve been able to name was a study in cross-eyed bewilderment — I’ve always been fascinated by them. I went to Denali National Park one day to hike, but, on finding a world covered with lichen, got down on the ground and spent the afternoon with them, in all their variety: tiny, lacy shrubs of one lichen run through with little branchlets of another, next to a large patch of dark brown sheets of felt lichen. A white crustose lichen so completely covered the flange of a tree stump that it wasn’t until I put my hand on it that I realized I was looking at wood, not granite. That white crust was dotted with a pink one. Tiny spires, holding up minute cups, occasionally edged in vivid red, grew all over the rest of the stump, happily embedded in moss.

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A Cladonia species around a tuft of snow lichen (Flavocentrai nivalis)

This plucky, endlessly adaptable, weirdly beautiful, not-plant, not-animal feeds reindeer and caribou. It holds and releases moisture, helpful to the plants that grow with it. It has some medicinal uses, and shows up in Japanese and Korean cuisines. Some are used as dyes, and some in making perfume. But its most important ecological contributions are its ability to take nitrogen from the air and add that essential element to the soil; its ability to live in, stabilize, and form soil in barren landscapes; and its ability to sequester carbon. Lichen, with the mosses and algae they grow among, all tiny and indomitable, take up as much carbon yearly as is released by the burning of forests worldwide. This amounts to 14 billion tons of carbon, as opposed to the 2.2 billion (and falling) tons absorbed by the Amazon rainforest.

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A tree stump with an entire village of moss and lichen in the Kenai Wildlife Refuge, Alaska

As hardy and amazingly adaptable as lichens are in their natural habitats, they are threatened by several things, especially air pollution, deforestation, and global warming. The first limits healthy growth, the second habitat, and the third will begin to further limit habitat, as lichens sensitive to temperature will have to go to higher and higher altitudes to survive. Those that cannot will die out.

And here is where the larger questions come in. If you ask people whether they would prefer to drive cars to work or save lichens, most people would ask, “What’s lichen?” It wouldn’t be an issue at all. It would seem obvious that we’re more important than a bunch of fungus and algae mashed together and ruining our wooden fence. We’re letting species go extinct every day. Why would a few little lichen matter?

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Tiny pink splotches of the interestingly named fairy barf lichen (Icmadophila ericetorum) in Denali National Park, Alaska

We don’t know why lichen matter. That’s the problem with every extinction. We see the stakes through human eyes. We want to get from place to place in our cars, we love computers, we need homes that are warm in winter and cool in summer. My home is tiny footprint, but I drove it to Alaska and back last year. Would I give up such incredible experiences to preserve the right environment for lichen? A challenging question!

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Brown felt lichen (Peltigera praetextata) with a Cladonia species in Denali National Park, Alaska

We are part of the biome, and we need habitat. There is an infinity of things we can do to reduce our effect on the planet, but even if we do every one of them, humans will still have an outsized footprint. Species will be edged out. Others will hang on, threatened.

We know some of these extinctions will matter. If bees die out, we face a world without fruit, flowers, nuts. If lichen dies out we’ll first lose their ability to sequester carbon, which will be released into an atmosphere already threatened by rising carbon dioxide levels. So temperatures may rise further, endangering more and more species.

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A section of the desert’s biological crust, in Butler Wash near Bluff, Utah

We would also lose a crucial soil producer and stabilizer. It’s hard for us to see, in the brown crusts of the sandy desert, how important a role those tiny, combined elements play in securing nutrients, water, and footing for roots. Hard to imagine the time span taken to break down rock into soil. To us, dirt has always been here, but we’re newcomers on the planet, perhaps even passers-by. The ramifications of such losses spread out like waves. Whatever we do to allow lichen to go extinct might well mean we’ve created a world inhospitable to us.

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Lichen on stone in Butler Wash, near Bluff, Utah

These questions are important, but they are also human-centered, asking of everything how it helps us. Cyanobacteria are 2.5 billion years old, the first photosynthesizers on earth, producers of the oxygen-rich atmosphere that all subsequent biodiversity depends on. The earliest lichen fossils  are 400 million years old.  The earliest human fossil is 2.8 million years old. The forces that created the earth with infinite slowness ticked lichen off the formation list much earlier than humans. Perhaps we’re here to help lichen.

Every form in nature is part of a whole, a web woven together with meticulous evolutionary care. We can only pull so many of those threads out before the fabric begins to weaken. And there may be some combination of threads which, when pulled, will destroy the integrity of the whole. The problem is, we don’t know which ones, leaving us with the great challenge of caring for the entire village on our finite globe.

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Reindeer moss (Cladonia rangiferina) along a trail in Stony Hill, Amagansett, New York